Reflection 160: Of Two Minds

November 23, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Like mocha, human consciousness is a blend of two different flavors, natural consciousness and cultural consciousness. Our biological values, drives, and motives are inherently natural; our language, music, art, learning, and skill sets are largely cultural. Human behavior is an expression of natural values as shaped and calibrated by the cultural affiliations of the actors who perform it. We don’t generally distinguish between the two flavors contributing to consciousness—one the base, the other the medium through which it appears—making the study of consciousness more difficult than necessary because the coffee and chocolate that lend it character are so easily confounded.

Every culture has sex, reproduction, caring, and nurture at its core. Without them, cultures wouldn’t exist. Any more than they would without food, drink, shelter, clothing, social companions, health, and personal wellbeing. These are integral parts of the base in any culture because they are of vital importance to every member, male and female, young and old. That’s the coffee.

The chocolate appears in the way individual cultures establish norms for expressing these vital drives so to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of their members (within the framework of social and natural conditions they all share in common). Such norms are intended to enable a diverse population to live in relative harmony by adopting particular ways of expressing their native values, drives, and motives as are deemed to be proper—that is, boosting the probability of individual survival in a socially acceptable manner.

Add cultural chocolate to a natural base of coffee—you get human consciousness with the overall character of mocha. Which some people like more than others. In some cultures women appear in public with their charms draped in dark cloth, while in others they strut their stuff in full view. Some cultures promote hospitality to strangers, others think it wiser to be suspicious of those you don’t know (which is one way of keeping other cultures at a distance).

On the Maine coast, there are a great many subcultures within, say, the fishing industry. Wormers talk to wormers, mussel draggers to mussel draggers, ground fishers to ground fishers, fish farmers to fish farmers, and so on, each staying much closer to the in-group than to outsiders. If you listen to representatives from the various groups speak out in public meetings, you keep hearing each group’s jargon backed by the same-old attitudes, everybody barking, nobody listening to anybody but himself. The problem is always the other guy—the guy you bark at but don’t speak with. It’s the same story up and down the coast as it is between isolated groups everywhere. Could be wormers and draggers, Israelis and Palestinians, Democrats and Republicans. Once the differences between their respective cultures set into stereotypes, everybody poses as a paragon of the tribe, nobody says anything meaningful, nobody listens. Attitude becomes the whole story, communication is made impossible.

One way around the impasse is to adopt a symbolic medium of exchange to bridge between tribes. I may not like you, but I’ll take your money because money is neutral. I’ll scan your propaganda as long as I have a right to my own opinion. We may even attend the same movies, which our respective outlooks turn into very different movies in our minds.

In our broader American culture, because our currency is the accepted medium of exchange in every corner of the land, everything has a price on the same monetary scale. This speeds and simplifies financial transactions, but makes it easy to believe that money is the prime value in our culture—the only thing that counts—to the point that something without monetary value doesn’t really exist. If you can’t peg its dollar value, what good is it? Thus money becomes not only a medium of exchange but the only culturally acceptable one. That is, it discriminates between what is a socially expedient value and what has true value from the standpoint of personal survival and wellbeing. If clean air or water don’t have a price, they aren’t part of our value system. If ecosystem integrity doesn’t have a price, we needn’t consider it. If honesty or character can’t be priced, do they serve any demonstrable public good? That is, anything existing outside our system of exchange—that is, anything priceless—has no meaning for us. With the result that money becomes the sole scale of value by which we decide what’s important in our culture, and what isn’t.

Which is the root of the national tragedy we are playing out on the world stage. If it doesn’t have a price tag, it can be safely overlooked. Everything can be put on the auction block to see what price it will fetch. If no bids come in, by our scheme it is trash. That is, in settling the differences between us by resorting to the common denominator of cash value—in putting a price on our personal values—we create a system that overlooks what cannot be bought—the truly priceless. Instead of our values running the economy, the economy is now running our values.

Mountains in Kentucky and West Virginia have no value other than as open-pit coal mines. Oceans are to fish, trees to cut down, skies and streams to pollute. That’s the level of value the economy’s bottom line has dragged us down to. In a culture where everything has its price, that price is the only thing we share in common, making every other value not only expendable but a possible obstacle to progress. The end is certain: Earth reduced to a forlorn cue ball orbiting in space, no mocha, no chocolate, no coffee—no life at all. Even now we mistake Earth for a globe, a manmade sphere—as if it met our specifications and not the other way around. We speak of the global economy, not the Earth economy, which would be closer to the truth.

In effect, by reducing their personal survival values to the one dominant cultural value represented by the economy, people are acting as if their culture is everything, their personhood nothing. Imagine a culture entire in itself with members so homogeneous you can’t tell them apart to determine if they even exist. All people reduced to consumers, all else reduced to goods. Only money is real. To settle our differences, that’s the world we have created for ourselves, the global economy in which we all play our role.

In that scheme, ecosystem services have a price. Fish have a price. Trees have a price. Bald eagles have a price. Energy has a price. Sex has a price. Mountaintops have a price. Music has a price. Art has a price. Yes, individual human beings have a net worth or a price. Everything is a resource to somebody, somewhere, so has its price. The highest bidder wins all. In the process, stripping the ultimate value—life itself—from the world household or economy.

Writing these words, I cling to the conceit that I am still of two minds. That my consciousness has not been wholly tamed, domesticated, or taken over by my culture, allowing me to stand apart as a wild-eyed observer capable of independent judgment, thought, and speech. If so, we indies are fast disappearing from the scene, along with newspapers, independent media, regulatory governments, mystics, disbelievers, oddballs, heretics, and skeptics of all sorts.

Twenty years ago the Berlin Wall was breached, leading to the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the re-emergence of some twenty states in Eastern Europe and beyond as independent nations. America claimed at the time to have won the Cold War, and welcomed those revitalized nations into its sphere of influence known as the global economy. Now China, India, and Brazil are joining the club of our kind of thinkers—those driven by dreams of wealth and power based on free-market exchange of every world resource at a favorable price. With one economic system triumphant over its rivals, human differences are seen as irrelevant. We form a global community of exploiters having equal opportunity to mine Earth’s so-called resources. Along with businesses, pension funds depend on profits from those resources, as do art and religious institutions, universities, and every kind of “non-profit” organization.

Instead of seeing it desirable to achieve a balance between our two minds as in the past, we are fast becoming a single-minded world culture bent on converting the Earth into personal profit. Like Ayn Rand and other prophets of capitalism, we have dollar signs on our minds—and little else. No one seems to think it strange that everyone pictures himself on the owning side of the deal rather than on the working or laboring side. Few, indeed, side with the Earth, even though every benefit we claim flows from the integrity of its biological functioning. From, that is, the mountains and streams of Kentucky and West Virginia before we stripped and leveled them for coal to burn in our power plants, producing cinders, ash, and carbon dioxide as by-products.

Repent, the end is near! Or is it too late to come to our senses and restore humanity to full consciousness? That is, can we still discriminate values that are convenient and cultural from those that are biological and personal? In sacrificing all for our culture, we stand to surrender our individual livelihoods to an economic ideology dressed as the only way to live, forgetting that capitalism works best for the very few who are on top. The rest of us are workers in the vineyard who can’t afford to buy the wines we ourselves produce.

One thing I am sure of, even though I can’t prove it, is that there are no techno-fixes for what ails us because every one of them merely passes our current burden to the Earth in a form future generations will have to deal with. In its day, the internal combustion engine was a boon to mankind; now it is a curse. Before that, three-fourths of arable land was devoted to producing hay for horses, cows, and oxen. Think of the manmade chemicals in mothers’ milk around the Earth, the plastic bottles and can liners that diffuse into almost everything we eat and drink. Hydropower turns running rivers and streams into standing ponds, blocking fish passage and the downstream flow of silt. What do we do with all these electronic wonders full of toxic metals and chemicals when we no longer want them? Are we to assume the technological solutions of tomorrow will not have a downside? There will be no more radioactive wastes, superfund sites, G.E.-ified Hudson Rivers? They won’t appear on the planning board; once in place, the toxic flaws we choose to overlook will appear in due order.

Start to finish, it is better to be of two minds than exclusively one or the other. Having both cultural and personal aspects of consciousness is the original checks and balances scheme. Individuals need to counterbalance corporations lest they become all-powerful (as, in fact, they are now). Cultures need to instill communal values in the common man to remind him he is not alone and can’t justify using others for his personal gain. If I want respect, so does my neighbor. Extending it mutually to each other, we’ll get along just fine. If I lord it over him, he’s apt to set fire to my barn.

The truth is, when I act, I act for all as a representative of humankind. There’s no escaping the fact we are all denizens of the one planet Earth. What I do, I do for all and to all. We are responsible for and to one another. That I can horde wealth for my benefit alone is pure fiction. That I can borrow from others and have a third party pay my debt is a fantasy. That I can leverage other people’s assets to make a profit for myself is nonsense. We keep trying these ploys, but in the end we all pay. And in the last analysis, Earth pays. If we think we can get away with it, we are too clever by half for our own good. As surely as we are born, we will die. Period. End of our little universe. The ultimate sign of respect is to hold positive regard for all those other universes that will come after us, whether of our genetic line or not. And to live on their behalf as if they mattered—which as Earthlings they surely do. They are one of us, of our planet, the only one we know of where life exists.

The mocha image I began this post with is too light to bear the load I freighted it with. I wanted to ease into my topic, so presented it in terms of flavors I thought people could relate to. My personal attachment is through serving mocha sundaes in the Schrafft’s Restaurant on 81st Street in New York back in 1953 and 1954. But neither chocolate nor coffee is essential to life. Water and oxygen, however, are the basis of photo-synthesis, the process that, in feeding plant and animal metabolisms, sponsors most living things. Water stands for the culture we are immersed in, oxygen for the biological values that spark consciousness to life. Consciousness requires a steady diet of both. I offer them here at the end of this post as more relevant to biological systems than the flavors of coffee and chocolate I offered at the start. In combination, they are the beginning, not only of consciousness, but of everything, including life itself.

Air, Water, Sunlight

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

Pen in hand, yellow pad in lap, I sit in my rocking chair at 2:35 a.m., waiting to discover what is on my mind. One at a time, concerns declare themselves, retreat, to be replaced by others. A very orderly process: nothing, then something, then nothing, then something else. Slow and easy. A kind of unthinking. As a mere spectator, I take sketchy notes. This goes on for twenty minutes.

1) Bonnie is gone. She died Friday afternoon. Hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for most of the week. Dear Bonnie, so loving, kind, fervent in her gentle way.

2) Overtaken by events, the plan to honor Ed (Bonnie’s husband of 59 years) on Sunday was put aside. I gave him the cards I had received, and announced that donations in his name came to $4,820. Most of the occasion was focused on remembering Bonnie.

3) Sent checks to FCNL (Friends Committee on National Legislation) in Washington in Ed’s honor. I wanted the donations to be a done deed by the time he heard about them, I’m not sure why. I didn’t feel comfortable delivering a promissory note.

4) Now on to forming an LLC that will own the island, keeping members’ shares undivided so no fences will ever be put up or lots partitioned off. Only communal ownership will preserve the integrity of the place. Once subdivided, the island might as well be part of the mainland.

5) Chef Jesse, my youngest son, has moved somewhere near Boston. The job didn’t work out as he’d hoped, but he wrote that that was more or less a ruse for making the break. He’s looking for work. Hope he’s OK.

6) Son Ken and his wife Linda’s Wednesday night suppers are their way of sharing with friends. I’m such a stick-in-the-mud about food, I feel like an outsider because, bringing my own little thermos of pea soup, I don’t share in the feast. Damn celiac disease!

7) Friends of Taunton Bay seems to be on the right track, switching from an emphasis on monitoring and research to public outreach. Me, I’m a research kind of guy. I’ll still have enough to do monitoring eelgrass, oysters, bottom temperatures, erosion, sea-level rise.

8) Taunton Bay Advisory Group is hit by low energy these days. Difficult transition to new leadership. Are we on the skids? Local bay management is too good an idea to let go. Spread stewardship around so users all take part in the process. How else can we achieve sustainability?

9) Having gone 186,000 miles so far, the old Geo’s got to keep going. Get that exhaust line patched up so I can get it inspected.

10) I’ve lost momentum in reading Gerald Edelman. Too much happening. Get back in the swing. Six down, only the last two books to go. I’ve followed along as he got his legs under him; now on to his taking full strides on the topic of consciousness.

11) November is car registration month. Pay off the balance due on insurance. Find the $300.

12) Eelgrass (and sea lavender) thrive when there’s plenty of snowmelt and rain; blue mussels thrive when salinity is high from lack of rain. Eelgrass died back in 2001, year of the drought. In this year of the deluge, it’s coming back—and mussels have gone missing. Eelgrass and mussels compete for the same patch of bottom, trading off as salinity rises and falls. I’m beginning to see the big picture. What do I do with it?

13) I retrieved my two water-temperature loggers this fall, read off a year’s worth of data (24 temperature readings every day) from each, and redeployed them one last time before their batteries run out. I see future climate instability reflected in the data, sea-level rise behind that. Extrapolating from the data in hand, any prophet worth his salt can peer into the future.

14) Consciousness is driven by both internal and external awareness. Whatever words and phrases we hear spoken around us when we are young serve to label concepts we form as we grow older. We pick up the customs and habits of our elders, and the terms they use to explain their worlds to themselves. That’s where the notion of god comes from—in the beginning was the word. First the sound of the word from the mouths of others as a label for something unknown, then the evolving concept of what we think it might refer to. Sounds like there’s a blog in there some place.

Then nothing. After sitting for 20 minutes tracking my own mind, I go to bed.

Indeed, there is a blog in those rocking chair thoughts. I woke up this morning wondering how much of my consciousness is due to the culture I am embedded in, how much flows from my own inner workings. Is there any way to tell the difference? I seem to be a creature of my time and place on Earth, and, simultaneously, to be wholly my natural self. The art of living may well be in finding a balance between that pair of loyalties.

One thing for certain: consciousness mediates our looping engagement with our surroundings, directing motor signals outward into the unknown, receiving incoming signals through our senses, picking and choosing which to attend to, which to ignore. Round and round we go, ingesting the culture we are immersed in, responding though acts shaped by and expressing values uniquely our own.

Every one of the 14 night thoughts I had early this morning presents an issue or concern selected from my ongoing engagement with the world. There is a tension between my personal values and events in that world, a tension that arouses thoughts in the middle of the night. Which makes it seem that consciousness is a kind of spark bridging the gap between my current situation and how I plan to deal with it. Have I done everything I can do? Can I do better? The result is a cross-section of my being in the world from my point of view.

Our early education calibrates our animal selves according to the lore and ways of our culture. Still today I find myself counting out the strokes of my hammer, one, two, three, . . . not eins, zwei, drei, or un, deux, trois. One process, different labels. I “know” that seven times eight is fifty-six because I memorized that formula from flip-cards in grade school. I can even prove it by constructing a box with seven units on one side and eight on another, then counting all the units in the box—see, fifty-six like I told you! I also know that houses are built on rectangular foundations and have rectangular windows and doors. On the other hand, those living in rural Mongolia or Guinea in West Africa know that houses are circular with arched openings, or have flaps made of overlapping yak skins. I know what a hat is . . . and that people in other parts of the world wear headgear I wouldn’t be caught dead in. I seem to be part natural and organic, part cultural and manmade. Reviewing those night thoughts again from that perspective:

1) Bonnie’s death is wholly natural; sitting in a circle, remembering how her life has affected ours, is largely cultural.

2-3) Honoring Ed for his initiative, leadership, clear-headedness, and exemplary actions feels personal, spontaneous, and wholly natural; making donations in his name to the organization he used to work for is a gesture of cultural recognition. To honor means to bestow high respect or esteem.

4) It seems a natural urge to want to protect an island on the Maine coast as habitat for humans and wildlife alike; opting out of the commercial real estate market by forming a limited liability company to own the island in undivided shares on its members’ behalf is a cultural solution to the threat of individual owners going bankrupt, forcing partition and sale of separate parcels, thereby destroying the island’s natural integrity.

5) It strikes me as natural that Jesse’s pursuit of happiness has taken him to the Boston area where year-round work is more likely available than in Maine’s seasonal (vacationland) economy; the loss I feel at his moving away also feels natural; that he makes a living as a chef and not a carpenter or exterminator is more a cultural expression of his making his own way in the world. The issue being, I want to send him a check for his birthday, and he has yet to tell me his new address. It’s been in the back of my mind for some time now that he hasn’t responded to my email inquiry; time to follow up on that, my unconscious mind takes pains to remind me.

6) Ken and Linda celebrate their circle of friends by preparing meals for them Wednesday evenings in November, thereby taking steps to create and maintain their own culture; nothing is more essentially natural than feeding one’s own metabolism. Celiac disease is a natural response to our culture’s breeding enormous amounts of gluten into wheat, overburdening the immune systems of those unfortunate enough not to tolerate massive doses of gluten. It’s partly a matter of genetics, which is as natural as can be, and partly a matter of diet, which is largely cultural and traditional.

7) Friends of Taunton Bay is a cultural—501(c)(3)—organization set up to protect a particular Maine estuary, and through revision of its by-laws, now dedicated to informing the public about the state and workings of that bay. As a founding member of that organization, however, I have fulfilled my inherently natural interests and concerns through trying to understand the processes that give this particular coastal embayment its essential character. As my native habitat, the bay and I have an ongoing mutual interaction of long standing.

8) The Taunton Bay Advisory Group, on the other hand, is a more recent cultural creation established in 2007 to advise the Commissioner of Marine Resources on how best to implement the Comprehensive Resource Management Plan for Taunton Bay. My role is to make sure conservation concerns are voiced and considered in group discussions, a role that comes to me naturally in light of my personal values and life experience.

9) Getting around may be a natural act, but automobiles are artifacts of the culture we live in. Without wheels, I could not participate in the culture I was born to. Taking care of those wheels seems only prudent, so repairing a leaking exhaust system is as natural and vital as eating and sleeping.

10) Reading eight of the books Gerald Edelman has written on consciousness is one of my chief educational projects at this stage of my life. Not that it is either easy or fun. But I do think it is important to look at consciousness from a variety of perspectives, and Edelman has more to say about the workings of consciousness than almost anyone else. So I read him and take what I can. Which I find very exciting because he sheds light on his topic from a novel point of view—that of a man trained in molecular biology of the immune system. He is his own man; I am my own man; we get along just fine. If consciousness is natural, then trying to figure out what it is and how it works must be natural. The mental frameworks in which such understanding can arise are products of years of intense speculation and research, thereby reflecting cultural traditions as old as human curiosity and thought.

11) Oops, it’s November: time to register my car. That thought seems to come out of the blue, yet clearly surfaces now because it is alive and well in the unconscious workings of my mind. Car registration is a cultural obstacle to inner peace; recognizing that obstacle as something that needs to be dealt with is a natural aspect of living in today’s world. Cultures are shaped by rules and procedures; if survival depends on mastering such, then abiding by cultural requirements rises to the level of a natural value, and obeying legal requirements becomes yet another challenge for those attempting to live a long, happy, and hassle-free life.

12) I am happy to have lived long enough after the great eelgrass dieback of 2001 in Taunton Bay to have some inkling as to why it happened. This fall another piece of the puzzle fell into place. 2009 is the year of the deluge, the opposite of 2001, year of the drought. Eelgrass and blue mussels are often found in the same habitat areas, sometimes together, other times one replacing the other. In some way, their habitat requirements are complementary. This fall while monitoring oyster set, I got a glimpse of how that works during a search for signs that salt-water farmed oysters were reproducing in the bay. No oysters, but equally interesting, no blue mussels either—attached to boulders we’ve inspected annually since 2005 and up to this year found blue mussels. Eelgrass dieback in the year of the drought; mussel dieback in the year of the deluge. Ah ha, it must be the salinity! Eelgrass likes it low, mussels like it high. I feel I begin to understand something about the bay when pieces fit together like that. Oyster aquaculture is a cultural activity (it is daunting to realize how much human effort it takes to farm oysters); understanding has been a natural activity of the human mind since the first child pounded the first precision timekeeper with the first blunt instrument.

13) Recording temperature data is one thing, interpreting that data is something else, and convincing a stranger that the interpretation is correct is something else again. Research is a cultural enterprise; otherwise we’d just thrust our arm in the air and pronounce whether it feels warm or cold. But the imperative of wanting to know and understand is both personal and natural. We pay attention to what matters. If temperature matters, we examine it closely. In a world that runs on energy, temperature as a measure of heat energy is highly significant, and a change of a degree or two Celsius is a big deal in natural systems because it affects how life-forms in such systems cope with increasing or decreasing heat energy.

14) Cultural rules and customs shape our life situations; native drives and inclinations guide our actions. Round and round we go, our biological values urging us on, the many facets of our culture making it clear just how appropriate our actions really are. Informed and calibrated by culture, consciousness is as consciousness does in the world; affirmed or offended by our actions, culture is as culture does right back at us. If the fittest are to survive, their fitness to the prevailing culture is a big issue. But start to finish, consciousness plays by nature’s rules: culture is a product of human beings doing what comes naturally. Clearly, I am of two minds about almost everything.

Black-and-Yellow Argiope